There’s a church near Wycliffe College in Toronto that I like to stroll by every once in a while to see if their “welcome” sign is still up. This is how it reads: “While on church grounds please abide by the following: Women should not dress in slacks. Women should have their head covered (kerchief or hat). Please do not talk during church services. EVERYONE WELCOME!”
The welcome message is dubious, I know. But it reminds me that Christians need to be sensitive, even vigilant, about how we come across to those who might be seeking a church community. Hospitality begins before people step foot inside the church door.
But how can a church become known as a hospitable, welcoming place to be?
It starts with an attitude from our heart. If we don’t have a heart that is open to strangers, no official signs, greeters or gimmicks will draw people into our congregations. When I moved from Vancouver to Winnipeg and was looking for a church, I tried an Anglican parish that had been recommended to me. Being unfamiliar with the practice of passing the peace, I was dismayed when those around me in the pews embraced and kissed their best friends and spouses, and I was left standing alone.
The church I eventually ended up at was full of people who acted as if they were genuinely happy I had come. “If you are treated warmly, welcomed, engaged, you do it to others too,” says the pastor of a non-denominational church in Edmonton. (There’s a fine line, of course, between being welcoming and overbearing. A welcoming church won’t pounce on a newcomer to join the choir or ask them to bake something for next week’s bazaar. Welcoming parishioners are gentle, not pushy, engaging but not nosy.)
Second, remember that hospitality is free. I’ve known churches that organize roast beef dinners and pancake breakfasts, charge admission and call it hospitality. It isn’t. It’s fundraising. Holding a welcome potluck brunch in September, with food provided by parishioners and an invitation sent around the neighbourhood in addition to personal invites to friends, is a better way to let the community know you care about them. If a meal seems daunting, try a fancy little Saturday afternoon tea party with no agenda other than to get to know people.
Hospitable churches go out of their way to meet the neighbours. They are not judgmental. They rarely evangelize, at least not in a traditional way, but people are drawn to their love and compassion. Hospitable churches are growing churches.
Third, hospitable churches seek practical ways of meeting the needs of newcomers or neighbours. A large Montreal church I know holds a back-to-school carnival in its parking lot, providing backpacks, school supplies and new clothing, along with burgers, clowns and face-painting, to low-income kids in the neighbourhood. (This can be done on a smaller scale, of course.) A small-town Ontario parish once hosted a free clothing depot, where families could come in and help themselves to anything they needed. A village church near Kingston regularly provides hot dogs, chilli and pizza to the students at the high school across the street. Other churches welcome the homeless through the Out of the Cold program, or get involved in breakfast or lunch programs at local schools.
There’s a difference, though, between just offering the physical food and actually being hospitable the way Jesus wants us to be. Remember the fish fry on the beach after the resurrection? Once the disciples had eaten, Jesus asked Peter pointedly, three times, “…do you love me?” and following on Peter’s affirmative, he pressed him some more: “Feed my sheep. Look after my lambs.” It’s the spiritual food – the spiritual hospitality – which concerned Jesus, just as much as meeting the physical needs.
Finally, there’s no place like a home. So many Canadians seem to have lost the practice of inviting people into their space. Yet a home is the place where we can truly extend ourselves to others. If you live in a community with a university, for example, there will be thousands of young people who are far away from home – many from other countries – who might easily feel lonely and isolated. Once your church has found its footing as a hospitable church, inviting newcomers into your homes is just a natural next step. Seniors, new Canadians, single parents – all are in need of warm hospitality.
First Lutheran, a church in Vancouver, was transformed over a period of years, first through providing low-income housing, then by welcoming refugees, and finally by offering sanctuary to a newer church member who was about to be deported. The older white people learned to embrace those who were different, and now the demographic of the church is not the same as it was 20 years ago. The older white people are still there, but they worship alongside former refugees from Africa, new Canadians and a one-time Russian spy.
“We found hospitality is not just greeting people at the door and inviting them to coffee after church,” says Pastor Richard Hergesheimer. “It’s a readiness to, and willingness to, and recognition that when you welcome people into your midst, you’re going to be changed. If you’re not ready to be changed,” he advises with a laugh, “try not to be too hospitable!”
Debra Fieguth is a writer in Kingston, Ont. Her book The Door is Open: Glimpses of Hospitality in the Kingdom of God, was published by Guardian Books. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org